Street News

A Touch of English

Unless you get lucky, most restorations require a little metalwork eventually. Some panels require heavy repairs, such as rust and serious collision damage while others just need a little massaging. The latter type of repair is what brings us here today. There are many ways to repair minor body damage like minor door dings, creases and dents. For doors, quarter panels and other large panels, body hammers and fillers are a better choice, but for removable panels such as fenders, hoods, and trunks lend themselves to working with an english wheel and planishing hammer. This is an age-old technique that, as of late, enjoyed resurgence in popularity realm of custom hot rod and motorcycle building, but its roots go back to the early days of the automobile when coach builders made each body by hand. The English wheel is one of those tools.

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An English wheel is a simple device that employs a large fixed-position steel wheel to press sheet metal over a smaller rolling die. The radius of the smaller die determines the size of the curve induced on the metal. This particular process is not only useful for manipulating flat metal, it lends itself perfectly to smoothing out dents, dings and creases in existing forms. By matching radius of the rolling die, the defect can easily be rolled out, reducing and in some cases, eliminating the need for body filler. The English wheel is considered a rough forming tool, generally, the part requires some smoothing, typically performed with a planishing hammer.

While the English wheel is a hand-operated device, the planishing hammer requires air-power to operate. This device uses an air-hammer to drive a wide, flat anvil up and down onto the sheet metal. As with the english wheel, the lower tool die is what determines the amount of curve. The tool dies are mounted onto a stationary post and the metal glides over the die. As the anvil comes down, the metal is bent over the die, adding shape. The speed of the anvil is controlled by a foot pedal, and the power of the strike is controlled at the hammer itself. The planishing hammer can perform both forming and finishing shaping. For complex compound curves and shapes, I prefer to use the planishing hammer as it works the metal faster and maneuverability is much better.

During the metal shaping process, the metal becomes work hardened as the molecules of the metal are squeezed closer together. Eventually, the metal gets too difficult to work and progress grinds to a halt. While not a really a big problem in dent repair, it surely is a problem with patch panels. There is a trick that will “loosen” the metal back up so work can continue. It is called annealing and is quite simple. Basically, an acetylene torch is set up with sooty flame (no oxygen) and the metal is slowly heated up, being careful not to overheat the metal. All you need is for it to get hot, not glowing. The metal is left to cool and then the soot is cleaned off. This process allows the molecules in the metal to spread apart, allowing the process to start over. While not necessary, annealing can be done at the beginning, before even starting the process. This helps when the metal is heavy, such as 16 ga.

To demonstrate this process, we took a rear fender off a 1947 Plymouth business coupe that had spent a long portion of its life running up and down gravel roads. The result was fenders riddled with rock dings that come from the inside. Along with that, there were a few creases that ran right down the heavily crowned top portion of the fender. Since the fenders come off, the English wheel and planishing hammer should make quick work of the fender, smoothing the fender, and leaving a panel that should only require a skim coat of filler.

The rear fender on this 1947 Plymouth business coupe has seen better days. Having spent most of its life in rural Oklahoma, there are a lot of outward dents from gravel roads. To begin the repair process, all the defects were marked with a sharpie making them easier to find when working them on the wheel.

The rear fender on this 1947 Plymouth business coupe has seen better days. Having spent most of its life in rural Oklahoma, there are a lot of outward dents from gravel roads. To begin the repair process, all the defects were marked with a sharpie making them easier to find when working them on the wheel.

The large flat upper wheel presses the metal between the lower crowned tooling die. These dies are available in many different radii, from flat to smaller than 2” crown.

The large flat upper wheel presses the metal between the lower crowned tooling die. These dies are available in many different radii, from flat to smaller than 2” crown.

The die drops in the U channels, locking them in place.

The die drops in the U channels, locking them in place.

The fender has been marked for demonstration purposes with a starting line.

The fender has been marked for demonstration purposes with a starting line.

Then a zig-zag pattern is laid out on the fender. Small increments yield the best results.

Then a zig-zag pattern is laid out on the fender. Small increments yield the best results.

The wheels will glide over the metal a little easier with a liberal spraying of lubricant.

The wheels will glide over the metal a little easier with a liberal spraying of lubricant.

The lower wheel is raised and lowered with a T-handle on the base of the tool. This opens the tool to accept the metal and adjusts the tension applied to the metal. The more tension, the heavier the crown. For repair work, all we want is the minimum, as we are not looking to reshape the fender, just smooth out the dents.

The lower wheel is raised and lowered with a T-handle on the base of the tool. This opens the tool to accept the metal and adjusts the tension applied to the metal. The more tension, the heavier the crown. For repair work, all we want is the minimum, as we are not looking to reshape the fender, just smooth out the dents.

The fender is run through the wheel. The pattern shown here is run several times, front to back, side to side. We are using a flat die here so we don’t reshape the fender.

The fender is run through the wheel. The pattern shown here is run several times, front to back, side to side. We are using a flat die here so we don’t reshape the fender.

Then turning the fender sideways, and running a similar pattern, we complete the English wheel work.

Then turning the fender sideways, and running a similar pattern, we complete the English wheel work.

The fender is now smooth, but not quite perfect. Note how the tops of the dings are knocked down.

The fender is now smooth, but not quite perfect. Note how the tops of the dings are knocked down.

The planishing hammer is a simple device that really saves time and money. The basic elements are an air hammer, a frame, and a set of anvils.

The planishing hammer is a simple device that really saves time and money. The basic elements are an air hammer, a frame, and a set of anvils.

The anvil stand shown here is held in place with a simple pin. The pin is removed to lower the stand and replace the anvil. The rotary cam makes fine tuning the anvil a breeze. The higher the anvil sits, the heavier the crown.

The anvil stand shown here is held in place with a simple pin. The pin is removed to lower the stand and replace the anvil. The rotary cam makes fine tuning the anvil a breeze. The higher the anvil sits, the heavier the crown.

The anvils are small mushroom-shaper pieces that come in sets or individually. This anvil is flat, no crown.

The anvils are small mushroom-shaper pieces that come in sets or individually. This anvil is flat, no crown.

The previously worked area of the fender gets smoothed out with the a low crown anvil. This ensures the fender will retain its original shape while not flattening the panel out either.

The previously worked area of the fender gets smoothed out with the a low crown anvil. This ensures the fender will retain its original shape while not flattening the panel out either.

The dents and dings are all gone, leaving only a smooth clean fender. This area just needs a skim coat and some block sanding.

The dents and dings are all gone, leaving only a smooth clean fender. This area just needs a skim coat and some block sanding.

For the next area, a higher crown anvil will be used. It is a good idea to attempt to match the crown of the original part as best you can.

For the next area, a higher crown anvil will be used. It is a good idea to attempt to match the crown of the original part as best you can.

This upper section of the fender has pretty nasty crease running along the center of the roll. This would be tricky spot for a body hammer.

This upper section of the fender has pretty nasty crease running along the center of the roll. This would be tricky spot for a body hammer.

This zig zag pattern shown here demonstrates a good way to clean up this crease.

This zig zag pattern shown here demonstrates a good way to clean up this crease.

Notice how the primer has popped off of the metal in the lowest areas of the crease. This fender is now comepleted and ready for block sanding and primer.

Notice how the primer has popped off of the metal in the lowest areas of the crease. This fender is now comepleted and ready for block sanding and primer.

About Jefferson Bryant (205 Articles)
A life-long gearhead, Street Tech Magazine founder and editor Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 5 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced. You can follow Jefferson on Facebook (Jefferson Bryant), Twitter (71Buickfreak), and YouTube (RedDirtRodz).

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